When I was nineteen I made a very, very big and very wrong decision. I chose to become a Fashion designer.
It was towards the end of a fun-filled, truly immersive creative experience that was known in the 80’s as a Foundation Course in Art and Design ( I can hear some of you who may have done this year of art saying “I wish my foundation course could have gone on forever” and so do I). I was at Brighton Poly. We tapped into a whole raft of disciplines, each for six glorious weeks; life drawing, graphics, illustration, painting, 3-D, ceramics and fashion and it was towards this last area of study that I started to lean.
See above; it was the 80’s and we were in the midst of the New Romantic era. My days and nights were filled with dressing up and clubbing, mostly sporting the Funboy Three spiky hair (in pink) and wearing long gloves to go to seedy clubs and dance in silly way with others who looked like me. But really, some of the best times were in the preparation, more specifically in the making of whatever outfit I would wear that weekend. Cutting out ra-ra skirts on the floor and hand stitching weird things together.
Foolishly I thought that this was what Fashion Design was all about and made my choice for the next step, being thrilled at gaining a place at Kingston Poly to do my degree. Once there I worked my chops off. Designing, cutting patterns, sewing and knitting. “I’m making things” I thought. “This is what a Fashion Designer does”. I took plenty of Pro Plus and my little sewing machine whirred on into the small hours, churning out radical-looking garments.
To cut a very long story short, I graduated and set off for New York, working in the heart of the Garment District. Not designing, but photocopying. A whole year of photocopying in fact. Followed by some tentative stabs at designing when allowed, but mostly realising that actually I would rarely get the chance to cut, sew and steam again. My life as a designer was set to be one of meetings, costings, spec. sheets, fax machines and rows with scary buyers.
Some of the best times were when I was sent down South (and I mean Deep South) to work alongside our pattern cutter in a sweltering factory in Alabama cutting and sewing in the lint-filled air. At 5pm on the dot he would put down his scissors mid-garment and say “It’s Miller time”, get into his pick-up with the built -in gun rack and rumble off in clouds of dust. That was that until the next day.
Back in the UK things were not really different. A few years of the above and I started to realise I never, ever made anything. I missed it. I had pretty much forgotten how to sew and didn’t know how to make stuff anymore. It was all paperwork and planning. Again, the best bits for me were in the factories, tweaking patterns and feeling fabrics.
I’ll skip the details but some years on I finally made the jump to teaching Fashion, a job that was tough to start with but soon became an absolute joy. I rustled “dot and cross” pattern paper, helped students thread machines and chopped out metres and meters of calico. It dawned on me; I just loved to make things. That was what I was born to do.
Years slipped by. I went from teaching and cutting patterns to to making Papier Mache mirrors to being a potter (throwing, to be precise), to framing pictures for other artists, and finally emerging if you could call it that, as a painter. All making things.
So here I am. All those decades on and I spent a very happy time yesterday in my damp shed cutting up wood with a scary mitre-saw ( a Mothers’ Day gift some years ago), measuring, sanding and glueing…basically happy as Larry. I was making a large pine frame for my large blue painting. The hours went by and I worked away, in a quiet little world enjoying the process.
It has taken me decades to realise that this is why my hands look like they do. A bit battered and worn with nails that have never been near a salon. Because I have always made things. I feel at home surrounded by sandpapers of differing grades, tools, glues and varnishes. I like the feeling of a pencil behind my ear and the swing of a tape-measure in my overall pocket.
Some of the best bits in teaching are when I get the chance to say “Here, let me show you” and settle down to draw lines with a soft pencil or mix up a sticky pool of acrylic to the right shade.
One of the few very good things to have come out of the lockdown period was a massive explosion of interest in making. Making bread, making art, making preserved food, making garments. Perhaps in the weirdest of times people were reaching back instinctively to the important stuff, to skills and as times we had been encouraged to forget as we embraced fast-paced 21st century technology and consumerism and were taught that this was what was best for us.
As John Lane says in his excellent book Timeless Simplicity, ‘Creativity…is no mere luxury, but an indispensable expression of our essential humanity”. And I reckon we saw that coming true in the last six months.
So, back to the frame. It’s there, sanded and painted white now. It’s just behind me, sitting on the table waiting for its painting to be pressed into it….that’s a good bit too. I can see if my working out worked. But what a lovely couple of days. All dust and glue, mugs of tea, old tools that once belonged to my boatbuilder father, smooth wood and mitred corners. I am lucky that I can do these things, lucky I have been taught by skilled teachers. There is nothing like making things.